What is it about these Cambridge guys? You'd think the university that matriculated John Milton would not produce such funny alumni as Peter Cook, John Cleese, Sascha Baron Cohen and now Richard Ayoade, who has already established himself in the UK as a standup comic and a star of such shows as "The IT Crowd."
His debut film "Submarine," based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne (opens today) is a mordantly comic coming of age story about a pale, introverted, and fatally bright schoolboy named Oliver who with premature world-weariness confronts the inevitable initiation into the eternal verities of sex, death, disillusionment, and peer bullying.
Like the filmmaker, he realizes that the best way to deal with such crushing realities is to have a good sense of humor about it. And be a good sport, as was Mr. Ayoade when I had an opportunity to grill him during the Independent Film Festival of Boston in April.
PK: For me this film evoked the 60s spirit of filmmaking. Reminded me for example of Lindsay Anderson's "If..." Was this an inspiration for you?
RRA: Yeah, because the whole film is meant to be seen through the eyes of the main character and we wanted him to see himself as an intellectual existentialist figure, so those films seemed appropriate.
PK: Oliver is no Harry Potter. He's not always very appealing. Is it difficult finding a balance between nastiness and charm?
RRA: I thought it was less important for the audience to like him than whether it made sense because part of the film is his working out how to be less objectionable. I very much, I am fascinated when I watch "Taxi Driver" but I don't like that character. I think that Oliver has an element of which he is somewhat of a psychopath.
PK: Another feature it has in common with "Taxi Driver" is the successful voiceover. Did you have a strategy to make the voiceover work as well as it did?
RA: I suppose you try not to have the voiceover say the same thing as your scene. Because Joe Dunthorne's book is very first person and it's an unreliable narrator so you can fill in the gaps between what he is telling what you think has occurred. Whereas in the film it's a more direct contrast between what he's saying and what you're seeing. The "Taxi Driver" voiceover says something quite banal, which misses the point of the scene but isn't necessarily a direct contradiction.
PK: So Oliver does the opposite, talking about banal things with an elevated style?
RRA: You can have a mock heroic element with someone talking about very small moments in epic tones.
PK: The soundtrack also complements what we see. How did that come about?
PRA: There was always going to be two strands in the sound track. There was going to be an orchestral score which would be internal to Oliver and then the songs that were on the mixtape [a collection of tunes that Oliver's hapless dad shares with him expressing his own experience with love and loss] within the world of the film - they were done by Alex Turner [from Arctic Monkeys]. And the idea was not to have preexisting music in the film so when you hear the songs you don't have an immediate sense of what it means or a wealth of association.
PK: The songs are from the pop cultural past, but one that only exists in the movie, so it's set not in the 70s or 80s but a period of its own?
RRA: Hopefully, yeah. There were a couple of things that have a physical date to them but are sort of unavoidable. It didn't feel like it had to be specifically located in Europe.
PK: But it's actually Swansea, Wales?
RRA: The novel is set there but this isn't specifically set in one town.
PK: It seems to me that both Oliver and Georgiana [his girlfriend] look like Alex Turner. Was that coincidental?
RRA: I didn't set out to find two people like that, but I quite like what they did.
PK: Craig Roberts[who plays Oliver] should be the model for 15-year-olds everywhere.
RRA: He's got a slightly older looking face, but looks very young.
PK: Seems like there are two worlds in this movie, that of the adults and Oliver's. Did you take two different approaches in these worlds and which did you feel more at home in?
RA: Largely, the film's seen through Oliver's eyes, so for Craig it was easier because the film's written as he's seeing it. And so for people who weren't Oliver, it was harder because there's no clue, sometimes, to their behavior in the novel, and it was obviously implied, but I was trying to make sure that they had a life just outside what Oliver would see of them, because Oliver sees just a narrow part of what they do.
PK: And he's kind of missing the boat a little bit.
PK: One of the shocking things in the movie was the bullying scene. Did you have any reservations about presenting that scene as almost lighthearted, non-condemnatory way?
RA: I suppose that argument always happens with any character who is not doing something that's morally acceptable, and in a sense you try and present that character's reasons for doing what they're doing, ecspecially if the story's told from one person's point of view, you get their take on it. Now, it's clearly not something that's condoned and I don't think anything in the tone of the film would condone that kind of behavior. The film doesn't condone it, you know, I think it's one of the many indications of that character's coldness, the thing that he has to change in himself.
PK: And Oliver also gets bullied himself.
RA: Yeah, I mean it's the sort of horrible reality of school.
PK: I know it's based on a novel, but there seems to be some immediacyacy to it, is there any personal experience you may be drawing on?
RA: I suppose subconciously, but the main focus is towards the story, and the subject matter is entirely culled from the novels, so you're never intentionally trying to make it more like your own
experience particularly, but I'm sure that ends up appearing in it.
PK: Do you identify with certain qualities in Oliver's character?
RA: Um, not greatly. But I don't identify with Travis Bickle and I'm very interested in that character.
PK: Oh come on. Just a little bit?
RA: Yeah, I mean sure, on a weekend. Yeah, it's more that you find someone interesting and you feel that they're realistic and there's something to them, and yeah, that's what makes me interested in doing something.
PK: At what point do you discover that you were funny, was it during high school?
RA: I don't really know...not particularly. I mean everyone thinks they're funny in high school. I mean, everyone considers themselves having a sense of humor. I was interested in writing, but I didn't think that I was somehow going to be a comedian in school. It became more apparent at University, I became involved in comedy productions, so it became more evident as a possibility.
PK: Cambridge has got a reputation for developing all of these great comic talents, like John Cleese, Sascha Baron Cohen, John Milton...and yourself...
RA: Well Milton, me, I think, is the natural lineage.
PK: Is there a secret there?
RA: It becomes a sort of self-perpetuating system, some people will attend that university simply to try and be in that club now, and I suppose the existence of Second City means that people will go through Second City. I mean Woody Allen said that the secret of most success is turning up, and I guess if people continue turning up to that club...
PK: So people here go to Second City, and they go to Cambridge for the same purposes..
RA: Quite a few people do, try to, you know...I suppose there's lots of people who are looking at exam results have say, a choice between going to Oxford or Cambridge, I certainly know a couple of people who specifically chose Cambridge because of the Footlights and other societies
PK: But you have to have certain qualifications other than a sense of humor?
PK: What was your original major field when you went in there?
RA: I did a law degree.
PK: You can always fall back on that?
RA: No longer, no, it only really applies for 5 years. And then it's no different to any other degree.
PK: Can you take brush up courses or something?
RA: I mean no, you very much can't. You go back to square one.
PK: The law degree, has that helped you at all in your line of work now?
RA: I'd say no. As in I have no expertise in that field.
PK: You were in the Cambridge Footlights, did you write the productions?
RA: They're all generally group efforts, so, any show contains writings from the people in it. So, yes.
PK: Did you ever think you could write a novel, like this is based on?
RRA: I don't think I could at the moment, no.
PK: It seems a lot less costly and work intensive than a movie.
RRA: I don't know that it's less work intensive, but it's certainly less costly.
PK: This film seemed to fall together rather quickly and relatively easily, is that true?
RA: Yeah, I mean, it's more than three years, but that I guess in independent films is relatively quick. Just, because this part [publicity] of it has gone on since September.
PK: Did you do test screening like in the United States?
RA: No, not really for films of this scale, because I think it's relatively expensive. It makes the edit very long and drawn out, and I don't know that films have gotten a lot better since testing was brought in. Your expectations for a film have a great deal to do with how you view it, your expectations of the people in it, and also the fact that it is a test. If you show someone a rough cut of a film that's got the exact same content as the end film, you'd get very different responses. Just telling people it's a test makes you view it differently.
PK: How many audiences have you seen this with, so far?
RRA: Very few, in terms of paying public. But you'd see it with different groups of people while you're making it.
PK: Is it a gratifying experience?
RA: Well, most of my experience with audiences has been through performing and then you have a job to do, you have a task, so I mean sitting back and watching something that I've been involved with with other people is not totally satisfying. As in if you really enjoyed that you're on a very bizarre road.
PK: But when you go see it with an audience and they laugh at the right places...
RA: Yeah, I mean I suppose you certainly feel it if they don't. But if they do, I guard against a sort of idea of complacency, and that somehow feels like a self-congratulating, complacent feeling to go oh well that works, everyone likes that. I don't really...feel that. I don't know, the difficulty is it sounds very ungracious, but it's more, I don't know...I don't think this is specific to this. Lots of people I know when everyone starts singing Happy Birthday to them, cringe. And everyone's being very nice, everyone's saying happy birthday, everyone's not trying to be mean...but they cringe.
PK: Like Ben Stiller in "Greenberg." Was it out of the blue that Ben Stiller came and produced this movie?
RA: Sort of, in a way, it's just they happened to read it. They liked it and they just decided to get involved to transport it.
PK: Did you hang out with him?
RA: um, I've seen him on quite a few occasions, because, you know he's been around so much to lend his support to it. He's been great, yeah.
PK: He seems to be a little dour in person.
RA: Not in my experience. I think one of the fallacies of the interview genre is that there's an element of transparency to someone's personality, and I think sometimes it can come out accidentally. I imagine he's relatively uncomfortable in those kinds of situations, you know, on a personal level he wouldn't feel uncomfortable.
PK: You seem to be more reserved when you're doing a one on one vs. Audience Q and A?
RA: Well, for me it's an odd transaction. I mean I suppose I feel it'd be a more alarming sign if someone was incredibly comfortable with talking about themselves. I guess I've always associated that with incredible impoliteness.
PK: The Arctic Monkeys, you've had a collaborative relationship with them for several years. Can you discuss how that works out creatively for you?
RA: I just, I really like them, and it's always really enjoyable doing videos for them and just personally I really enjoy being around them, and they don't take themselves seriously except in the aspects that are appropriate for seriousness. And I speak to Alex a lot about videos [Ayoade has directed several Arctic Monkeys videos].We'd all speak about together and watch things, you know.
PK: Were you listening to the radio and said I'd like to meet those guys?
RA: Um, no, it was through Warp Productions who produced this film and they'd made some music videos for them. And I'd mentioned to them that I wanted to do music videos or I'd really like to, and they put me forward, to apply for the position.
PK: You did stand up; was that fun?
RA: I was very bad at stand-up and I found it terrifying. I have Quite bad stage fright in any case, so it was very harrowing.
PK: Was it always in the back of your mind that you wanted to make movies?
RA: Not until relatively recently. I always really was obsessed with them for a while but didn't think it was neccessarily an option, it seems quite outlandish the prospect of being able to get to make a film.
PK: So you started with videos?
RA: I started with writing, writing comedy. And then the directing came as a result of writing comedy.
PK: What was the name of the first show that you did?
RA: We did a stage show of "Garth Marenghi's Fright Knight" which was the first, I suppose, relatively professional thing we did.
PK: When was that?
RA: Maybe 2000.
PK: Do you think you're established now as a director?
RA: No, I wouldn't say so, I mean I've only done one film.
PK: Orson Welles only did one film, too, before he was established.
RA: Sure, I think the question is the film that you've done, and he...yeah.
PK: As far as I can tell it's been almost a universal positive response from people.
RA: It's had very good reviews. That still is not enough to link it to Orson Welles.
PK: He was probably full of doubts, too, when he started out.
RA: Well he was wrong to be full of doubts, because...
PK: Do you have directors who inspire you?
RA: I mean I love Orson Welles, I don't, I mean there's so many directors that I love, I love Stanley Kubrick and Fellini, Woody Allen, I mean there's so many.
PK: Your film seems to have aspects of all those people you've mentioned...
RA: I love all of them, I can't, for me they're sort of untouchably great and I could not imagine anything approaching how amazing they are. But, yeah I mean more or less anyone who has had a film released by the Criteron Collection, I like, hundreds of directors.
PK: Do you have a number of those on your bookshelf?
RA: Yes, they're amazing. It's one of the serious financial problems I have in my life.
PK: Going back to Orson Welles and the others you mentioned, none of them were known for their comedies...
RA: I think Kubrick films are very funny. I think "A Clockwork Orange" is very funny, "Dr. Strangelove" is obviously very funny, "Lolita" is very funny, I think "The Shining" is very funny.
PK: Intentionally, too.
RA: Yeah, just use of venality. Deliberate venality in all of the conversations. A sense of uncanny venality. I think he's extremely funny. "Barry Lyndon" is very funny. I think that the duel is a combination of the most harrowing and tense scene with it being quite funny. I think Lord Bullington is very funny in that film. I think it's a very funny film, Michael Horden's voiceover is very dry and ironic.
PK: Do you do a lot of reading?
RA: Not compared to what I'd like to, a little bit. I remember reading something Jonathan [Franzen? Inaudible] wrote that when he really wants to get depressed he works out how many books he's going to read a year and multiplies it by how many years he has left to live. And there's a phrase which is something like ‘the resultant low figure sum is enough to...' send him into despair..
PK: At least you're flying around a lot, so you have time...
RA: The frustrating thing with that kind of travel is that you're too tired to profit from all of the waiting. You end up staring a lot. Yeah, you only realize how completely hobbled with tiredness you are when you see some hollowed out picture, some press picture of you with cavernous eyes, sweating.
PK: One thing about humor is that sometimes it doesn't cross oceans. Do you have any worries about your dry sense of humor translating to American audience hooting with laughter at "Hangover 2?"
RA: Um, well "Hangover 2" could be pretty funny, I don't know I haven't seen "Hangover" but I imagine they're not wrong to be laughing at it. I don't think things are as localized as fear. With the internet people see things from all over the world and there aren't these ghettos of humor and people are very aware of stuff from all over.
PK: "The IT Crowd" isn't really shown on television in America but people pick it up on the internet...
RA: I think some people do, and I think it's on IFC...well somebody was saying it's on the IFC channel I don't know if it's regularly on but a surprising number of people seem to have seen that show in that I sort of didn't really imagine that anyone here had seen it. Well lots of people work with computers.. I'm not overly worried about it because what can you do. You can only make what you feel you can, and I think people can sniff out if they're being pandered to or wooed, so I think you can only do something that you feel is appropriate.
PK: How well did "Submarine" do in its UK release?
RA: I mean it did relatively well, I think, well it did better than they'd hoped which clearly was much better than I'd hoped. And it stayed in cinemas for a couple of months which is relatively good, yeah, I mean it came out to 50 or 60 screens so it was never going to be a widespread kind of release because it's just not on that kind of scale as a production, it's low-budget independent film.
PK: Do you think you'd ever be tempted to work in Hollywood?
RA: Potentially, yeah, it really would depend on what it was.
PK: Didn't you recently do a TV show?
RA: I directed an episode of the show "Community."
PK: Has that been broadcast?
RA: Yeah, yeah it's been out.
PK: How was that experience?
RA: It was good, yes, the cast are really great and I really liked them and I think the writing on the show is very good, so it was really enjoyable and it was a ‘my dinner with andre' episode.
PK: Did you pass your card around to various producers?
RA: Um, No. I don't have a card and I didn't pass it around. Maybe those are two errors.
PK: It was kind of a metaphor.
RA: I know, but some people do have cards. No, you're just there to do that show...no not really I was just there, doing that.
PK: I know you've never answered this, do you have another movie planned?
RA: Oh, no I've answered it. I'm working with a writer called Avi Korine on an adaptation of "The Double" by Dostoevsky.
PK: Now that's a comedy.
RA: Yeah, kind of. He's got some good one-liners.
PK: How far along is this?
RA: It's hard to say. Um, I don't know, three quarters?
PK: You mean the script?
RA: Well, there have been a few drafts of the script now, but it's just how many more there'll be.
PK: Do you have a cast?
PK: UK production?
RA: I think, certainly in part, yeah.
PK: I can't think of any hit Dostoevsky adaptations...
RA: Well Aki Kaurismäki did a "Crime and Punishment" which I liked, I thought was good. I love him. I think he's great. He's one of my favorite directors. [enter the publicist calling time] okay well thank you very much.